'Push that ass up that hill' - why sport is like business

If you were an attacker in school hockey, chances are you go on the front foot in business, says A Very Good Company founder Natalie Campbell.

by Natalie Campbell
Last Updated: 03 Feb 2015

I’m trying to make a lifestyle shift toward healthy living, with lots of exercise, a reduction in my over-consumption of Dominos pizza (super thin base? Yes please!) and time for meditation. I have started to notice that when I need to push through a pain barrier in the gym I think about winning at work or in my career more generally. When the evil PT shouts ‘push-that-ass-up-that-hill’, cursing aside, I start imagining hearing the news A Very Good Company has signed a major new contract or a company I am working has won a big piece of business.

Because I have yet to master the silent mind in meditation, I used the time in my recent session to reflect on the connection between sport, achievement and business. There are lots of books about it but, me being me, I don’t have the time (read: not fussed) to read or Google them, so I am going to offer my own heart-and-head contribution.

Think back to when you played sport in school, team sports in particular. Did you always end up playing the same sort of position? I did. I played Wing Attack (WA) in netball, a forward position in basketball and something attack-related in hockey (I wasn’t very good, hence the fuzzy memory).

Lo and behold, I play similar roles in my career.

For those of you that don’t know the game of netball, firstly, shame on you - we have a brilliant England team. But, for reference, WA is the second attack position after the Centre. WAs can access two thirds of the court - the central and goal-scoring thirds - but they cannot enter the shooting area. This means I can drive forward towards success in a game, but I can’t take the final shot.

I always wanted to be the Centre, as they were essentially the lead player; but whenever I did get the chance I found having to be a jack-of-all-trades tiring and would usually injure myself. (My dad picked me up from A&E after matches on a regular basis - let’s just say we played hard and we played to win.) I was however, team captain for most matches, a role that should have been assigned to the centre. On the other hand, I hated playing defence - it was such an alien role for me.

It is no coincidence now that I like taking on opportunities that enable me to catalyse activity, drive toward achieving a goal or set up partnerships, but that I never do the really detailed work (the final design, the website build, the writing of the report, etc). Back in my netballing days I was responsible for the team as captain. I don’t take the winning shot now, and I’m not even the MD anymore, but I am still the boss.

Have a think about it. What roles did you play at school? Do they relate to how you perform now and the positions you’ve had through-out your career? Sport has rules to follow, so a lot of how we behave in a game is defined by those. In business there is more room to write your own, but I still think I’m on to something. But of course I would - belief is everything.

I’m going to take a guess at what positions these celebrities and entrepreneurs would have played if netball was their game of choice.

J.K. Rowling

JK would have been a Goal Shooter - focused on the target and a slick shot, but low profile on the team, even if all the goals went in.

Victoria Beckham

VB would have been Centre for sure - probably very fast, nimble and a quiet leader, but always setting the team up to win.

Katie Price

The model formerly known as Jordan would have been ‘Pricey - the Goal Attack’. She needs the recognition that comes with scoring goals but doesn’t want to be restricted to the shooting circle, so playing this attack role would suit both needs.

Richard Branson

Old Beardy would have played Goal Defence. His role would be to ensure the other team didn’t score, but not to drive for goal scoring. Controversial, but, given the businesses he sticks the Virgin logo on, innovation and attack isn’t his thing. He’s a patient defender - after another brand has taken action he’ll be there with the block or stunt to stop them. That said, I think he’s taking more risks now given the (so far tragically cut short) ambitions of Galactic.

Drop me a tweet at @NatDCampbell if you can remember your sporting position and make the connection between that and your career now - I’m intrigued. If you don’t I might just have to read those books after all...

Meet Natalie Campbell at our Inspiring Women event on 20th November. Fellow speakers include Thomas Cook boss Harriet Green, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold, Links of London founder Annoushka Ducas and M&S style director Belinda Earl. Check out the progamme and book tickets here.

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